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Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars, a careful and thorough look at US involvement in Afghanistan through 2001, has written a column in the New Yorker about the botched raid across the Uganda DRC border sponsored by AFRICOM. The map above shows Garamba Park, where the raid took place.

Coll writes about how AFRICOM describes itself:

The explanatory “commander’s vision” on Africom’s Web site is a mush of “Dilbert”-inspired, PowerPoint mission creep. The Africa Command, it says, “develops and implements military programs that add value to the important endeavor of stability and security on the content of Africa and its island nations.” It also “directs, integrates and employs credible and relevant military capability in peace and in response to crisis.” It is a “trusted and reliable partner for nations and security institutions in Africa.” And, of course, it is a “listening and learning organization.”

If you could even sort out what those slogans mean in practice, would you believe them? Not anymore. On Saturday, the Times published an important piece about the training, planning, intelligence, and financial support Africa Command provided for a cross-border raid by Uganda’s military against the Lord’s Resistance Army, which had gone to ground in a national park in the Congo. The raid turned out to be the military equivalent of poking a bee’s nest with a stick—the L.R.A. escaped, and, in the ensuing rampage, its members killed hundreds of Congolese civilians.

Coll continues:

The L.R.A. is a cult-like militia with a long record of atrocities whose leader has been indicted by the International Criminal Court. One can imagine the White House review in the expiring Bush Administration that authorized support for an Ugandan mission, which included intelligence photos and mapping, operational plans, satellite phones, and a million dollars worth of fuel. As it has done for this season’s producers of “24,” mucking around in Africa would have offered the outgoing President and his advisers the fantasy that they could reframe, in a final act of heroism, the moral equation of their misbegotten Global War on Terror.

… Rather than the satisfying, vindicating capture of a child-conscripting war criminal, the George W. Bush Administration received a final lesson in the immutable laws of unintended consequences in war (which laws the Administration might have memorized after Iraq).

The larger issue here is the momentum that military liaison creates when it becomes the heavily funded nexus of U.S. policy. Africa Command’s mission is to “engage” with brother armies, its commanders have a professional bias to action, and they often do not take strategic direction from civilians until they are ready to present their war, engagement and training plans, whether in Colombia or Pakistan or Uganda. Military liaison, even if it is conceived progressively, becomes its own self-fulfilling destination, especially when the rest of the U.S. government is starved, by comparison, for resources.

AFRICOM, the US Africa Command, is the heavily funded nexus of US policy in Africa. US military investment dwarfs all other investment.

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kony-lra

Photo of Joseph Kony and leadership of the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, from a photo essay by Erin Baines taken in 2006. Kony is seated, front row, the second face from the right; lower left inset of some young LRA “soldiers”.

The Lord’s Resistance Army has plagued Uganda for 20 years. It is most notable for kidnapping children and turning them into LRA soldiers and slaves, and for its brutality towards civilians. It created a phenomenon in Northern Uganda called night commuters, children walking long distances to shelter in town overnight so they would not be kidnapped by the LRA.

AFRICOM, demonstrating its goal to “enhance the ability of each one of our African partners to provide for their own security”, helped plan and pay for a thoroughly botched attempt by the Ugandan Army to crush the LRA, Operation Lightning Thunder. According to the New York Times the LRA:

… had been hiding out in a Congolese national park, rebuffing efforts to sign a peace treaty. But the rebel leaders escaped, breaking their fighters into small groups that continue to ransack town after town in northeastern Congo, hacking, burning, shooting and clubbing to death anyone in their way. [map here]

The United States has been training Ugandan troops in counterterrorism for several years, but its role in the operation has not been widely known. It is the first time the United States has helped plan such a specific military offensive with Uganda, according to senior American military officials. They described a team of 17 advisers and analysts from the Pentagon’s new Africa Command working closely with Ugandan officers on the mission, providing satellite phones, intelligence and $1 million in fuel.

The operation made no effort to warn or protect the civilan population although reprisals and civilian massacres are standard operating procedure for the LRA.

The LRA got word the attack was coming and fled, leaving empty campsites.

In an indescribably savage manner, the rebels then attacked several homesteads, axing, cutting, slitting throats and crushing skulls with wooden bats and axes. …

According to the president of the civil society of Dungu, Felicien Balani: “The LRA entered around midnight. They surprised the faithful of the church who were in a prayer vigil. They burned them in the church,” said Balani. …

“In Doruma, it was really awful. They had killed at least 300 people. We were in a village where there are only six survivors, all the others were killed,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, who coordinates the investigations on behalf of Human Rights Watch. …

After the massacre, the rebels “ate the Christmas feast the villagers had prepared, and then slept among the dead bodies before continuing on their trail of destruction and death” through another 12 villages.

In September 2007 Jendayi Frazer, the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs said:

So we will not sit still and just let them live in Garamba Park and cultivate land and kill animals. … the US government is worried that a fresh regional war involving Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo could flare up …

According to Dr Frazer, the US government is ready to back co-ordinated military operations by the three countries to fend off rebel forces fighting any government while using a neighbouring country as a military base.

Dr Frazer also vowed that her government would not shy away from employing military means to end the activities of the “negative forces” if efforts to end conflicts through dialogue are not successful – yet another indicator of the new approach the US is taking on conflicts in the region.

Instead of providing stability or security the US and Uganda have succeeded in expanding the war against civilians in the DRC. That area of the DRC had been relatively peaceful before Operation Lightning Thunder. Now many thousands more are suffering. And the slaughter of civilians has not ended. The LRA continues its path of slaughter and devastation through villages in the Congo. Uganda appears to consider the operation a success:

“The operation has been a success in that it has left Joseph Kony naked,” State Minister for Defence Ruth Nankabirwa told IRIN.

“Because of the surprise nature of the attack, he fled from his camp empty-handed. He left behind everything, including food, equipment and other gadgets, so this has reduced his capacity,” she added.

AFRICOM along with its African military partner, Uganda, launched Operation Lightning Thunder. The result is their target, the rebel LRA, escaped untouched, around 900 civilians are dead, thousands raped, maimed, injured and their homes destroyed, hundreds of children conscripted, at least 100,000 displaced. Of those 100,000 people who have been displaced, it is estimated at least half of them are inaccessible to help. And any aid would be a magnet to the LRA as they continue to restock by murder and theft.

I wonder how the AFRICOM side of the military partnership sees this. Is the biggest problem the devastation they have helped create? or is it the bad publicity? In recent history African militaries rarely engage in military to military wars. Most wars are against the civilian population. America had many of these military partnerships with Africa during the Cold War, with horrifying results. As long as American foreign policy is military policy in Africa, as long as military to military partnerships are the goal, there will be many more equally horrifying attacks on civilians.